This is the first part of a three-part interview with Shane Sooter, the founder of City on a Hill Productions. The complete interview, which took place in late 2014, is available in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 1.
Bolinger: Shane, please provide us with a little background on yourself and the projects on which you’ve worked in the past decade or so.
Sooter: I started working in a church setting. I then moved on to a parachurch organization, and now I’m independent, but my learning occurred in that weekly pressure cooker of “Sunday’s always coming”. I feel that I can relate to folks who “do church”, week in and week out.
…[Today,] there are so many…churches whose whole worship service is supported by media if not directly interactive through media:
- You may start the service with a short video.
- When you’re singing worship songs, you’re watching the lyrics for the songs on the screen, but there are not just the lyrics there but also motion backgrounds.
- There could be a Scripture animation that comes up for communion meditation.
- [A portion of the sermon, or the entire sermon,] may be on video.
- Other elements of the service also incorporate video.
Media use is woven into the fabric of the service. You’d have to entirely reimagine what the service would be to remove it.
Getting Creative with Video
Bolinger: I would venture to guess that a lot of our smaller and even midsized churches really haven’t reached that point yet. Can you talk about how they might get there? Let’s start with equipment.
Sooter: One of the most exciting things that’s happened in all of church life is the democratization of production. Just about anybody can get into what really only churches like Southeast Christian could have done 10 years ago. I mean, when I was starting in video production, we were using $40,000 cameras and they weren’t even HD. Just the production facilities that were required to just edit a video…I mean, nobody edited a video on a laptop. I remember when I got my first laptop and edited a video on it, people around the church came to look because they couldn’t believe that could be done. I mean, that was done on big computers with big arrays of hard drives. It seems so archaic, but that was really not that long ago.
Now your basic laptop has all the power that you need to edit videos and to run multimedia for a service. The cost of projectors has certainly gone down.
How does a small church get into it? It really comes down to creativity: seeing what the needs are in their congregation, the challenges that they have in communicating the Scriptures in a compelling way, and being able to see ways that the arts could help.
Bolinger: Why would I incorporate video into the worship service at a small or midsized church? I’m not trying to reach people at a different campus. What are some reasons why I would want to make a major change to how we do worship to incorporate video?
Sooter: Almost any church already has a need to begin using media, whether they realize it or not. I was visiting my childhood church in Lebanon, Kentucky, a couple of weeks ago. It’s a really small church. There’s not a bad seat in the house. And still every single person in the church watches a screen all day. It’s their phone. There’s not a town so small that people don’t have iPads and computers and aren’t being conditioned in this day and age to expect to be able to watch whatever they want to watch whenever they want to watch it on whatever device they want to watch it on. Therein lies a tremendous opportunity to continue to get the message out there.
This little church uses video cameras not to record the preacher to send it to a satellite location or to put him on a big screen so that people can see him, but just to put the sermons online, because people watch them, whether they’re not able to attend or they want to share with somebody. The need to make the teaching of the Word of God in these houses of God accessible to people in the way in which they are most used to taking in information these days is universal and growing. If you’re going to recognize and address that need, then it creates a tremendous opportunity for you because you’ve already got the majority of the tools you need to start to get creative.
Potential Starting Point: Music Videos
[At Southeast Christian, we] started with doing music videos. We’re always trying to craft these very specific worship moments. Something at Southeast that I’m sure a lot of churches strive for is not just to pick up a handful of contemporary worship songs and a handful of classical songs and worship to them and then hear a sermon, but to make the entire worship experience about the message of the sermon. So the worship songs are relevant to the content of the sermon and are trying to prepare people to hear a message on that subject. And when you start getting that kind of specificity, after you choose a worship song you may say, “If we told a story with a music video for this song, then we could really engage people.”
Or it could be simpler than that. You’ve got the lyrics for your worship music up on the screen. Sometimes people have a motion background for that, and they’re fairly generic kind of eye candy for the most part. What if instead of that you look at the lyrics of that song and you consider some worshipful images that can go behind that? Maybe you shoot some footage of somebody praying or some people who are serving together. It’s hard to give examples because those examples will come out of specifically what you are trying to achieve that weekend.
The big point is realizing that, no matter what you’re trying to achieve that weekend, it’s not so much video but really the creativity of coming up with ideas that support that. Video just happens to be one of the most versatile tools you can use to create those moments and to give life to those particular ideas.
So we started with music videos because, quite frankly, sound takes a lot of work. It’s crazy! People think that it’s probably hard to shoot video, but actually capturing of an image and editing it together is almost simple compared to what it takes to carry off things like dialogue or good sound. With music videos we just didn’t have to worry about that.
Every once in a while we would do dramas at Southeast Christian Church, and those were incredibly impactful. You can probably remember a story that your pastor told a couple of weeks ago more than you can remember the three main points of the sermon. Whenever we would do a drama, it was the same thing. If there is a compelling issue that’s being explored in the sermon, and you can find a way to bring that to life in something that feels like truth in real people having real kinds of conversations, then that drama can be really powerful and effective. We know that.
But what if it’s a husband and wife having a fight? What if it’s in a living room? What if you’ve got three different characters having three different issues? What if, by using video, you jump to those three different worlds? You’ve got so many other tools that you can bring to bear on bringing that to life.
In a drama [production held in the sanctuary during the service], the audience has to work to get involved in it because, yes, it’s a husband and wife having a fight, but there are two people whom they know go to their congregation and they’re sitting in chairs up on the worship stage with the pulpit in front of them and the piano behind them. If you gift wrap that in what feels like the real life of the situation, then I think it’s a lot easier to get engaged and a lot easier to identify with, really, which is the point. You’re trying to get people to identify with the issues that are being explored. Where we might do a drama, we started considering doing it on video.
In Part 2, Shane looks at more potential starting points and discusses the type of quality that is required of videos produced by a church.